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John Lundberg

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Watch: Is Rap Poetry?

Posted: 05/18/08 08:02 AM ET

Like a lot of suburban kids, I went through a phase. Driving to school in my beat up old Honda Civic blasting Onyx, Cypress Hill, and Run-DMC. Wanting to annoy everyone around me. Wanting to be edgy.


Never let a punk get away with murder


Gun shots, gun shots, all you heard-a

What's up? What's up? What's the word up?

Press your luck or buck another sucker just ducked

Rap had about as much relevance to my life in Centreville, Virginia as Beowulf, but I loved it. It was emotional. It was raw. Even then, I noticed in it the power of rhythm and rhyme and the power of witnessing. I can't say it had much to do with my becoming a poet, but it was where I got a first taste of the power of the word.

Even in the halls of academia, you'll hear whispers of admiration for rap. Watching an Eminem video with a fellow poet, she leaned in and confided, "I think he's kind of a genius." A poetry professor I know takes unabashed pride in his own rapping ability (I'm too nice to out him). But while poets can and should appreciate the power in rap, is it poetry?

It's the kind of question that makes poetry's gatekeepers spin in their office chairs, and it's easy to understand why. Comparing the two genres, there's a huge difference in artfulness and intent. It's hard to compare John Keats' meditations on the sublime to Nelly's meditations on sneakers, and Plath and P. Diddy just look silly together. At the same time--especially at a time when many consider poetry to be a dying art--I'm a proponent of its having a big tent.

Spoken word poetry offers something of a bridge between traditional poetry and rap, and some in the poetry establishment are trying to take advantage of it. One example of this is Poetry Out Loud, wherein high school students across the country memorize and recite poems. "We are taking the impulse of the electric popular culture and linking it to the masterpieces of poetry," poet Dana Gioia told the Washington Post. It's a smart way to try to get kids in the door. Spoken word is closer to rap than traditional poetry, but it's got a little of each genre in it. In case you've never heard it, here's an excerpt from "Penny For Your Thoughts" by a poet named Gemineye:

Can I offer you a penny for your thoughts?

As a matter of fact, how about three?

One penny for you, one penny for me,

And one penny for our minds engaged not so sexually.

Getting intimately closer as we approach the

Climactic altitude of nude, mental, sensational...conversation.

Because I'm trying to get to know everything about you

From the neck...UP.

So these are not your typical, sexual, poetical prose.

I'm trying to close the door on that all too familiar freaky foreplay game.

With which most guys have chose to approach you.

While they are trying to get deeply embedded

in the fine fibers of your bed sheets,

I'm trying to find and define the fibers of which your mind speaks.

I want to engage you

By putting a two karat solitaire diamond ON YOUR MIND

Marrying your every thought!

Some of the power of the poem comes across on the page. You get a sense of the musical effects. You can see the clever way Gemineye sexualizes his appreciation of his subject's intellect. But the poem is far, far stronger when it's spoken by the artist. It's meant to be performed. Watch the video:

So is L'il John a poet? Even the elbow-patched, pipe smoking variety should appreciate his rhythms, right? (from "Lovers and Friends")

But you ain't been nuttin' but a friend to me (shawty),

And a [****] never ever dreamed to be (shawty),

Up in here, kissin', huggin', squeezin', touchin' (shawty),

Up in the bathtub, rub-a-dubbin' (shawty),

Like I said, it's a big tent.